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Experts press Biden on travel strategy amid virus surge in India

Experts press Biden on travel strategy amid virus surge in India
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The U.S. will impose travel restrictions on visitors from India starting Tuesday, underscoring how COVID-19 remains a huge threat around the world even as it starts to recede in the United States.

The dichotomy raises a number of questions for the Biden administration on how to handle travel from a number of countries where COVID-19 cases are continuing to explode and where vaccinations are proceeding at a slower pace. Experts say the U.S. lacks a cohesive strategy on travel rules.

While the restrictions on India are the only new ones being announced Tuesday, questions may be raised about other countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

“I don’t understand the strategy right now. It’s not that the restrictions are wrong, but they are inconsistent,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner. “In light of the fact that the US has an increasing rate of vaccinations and the rest of the world will continue to have outbreaks, now is the time to have a consistent message of when travel restrictions will be applied.”

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The White House attributed the ban on most travel from India to high COVID-19 cases and multiple variants in the country. COVID-19 deaths topped 3,000 for the fourth consecutive day on Sunday in India.

The outbreak in India has spilled into nearby countries like Nepal, where hospitals have run out of beds, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“If India is being added because of the stated reasons of rising infections and possible new variants, then why aren’t other countries that are also affected in that region? Otherwise, you have a policy with many holes and if it's inconsistently applied then you might as well not have the policy at all,” Wen said.

The airline industry has lobbied the administration to take a risk-based approach to travel restrictions and put countries on the list where the risk is high, but also to be transparent about what that criteria is and how it's being used.

“We think this is an area where we’d really like to see the US government lead. We’ve seen the administration achieve remarkable success in the vaccination roll out…now is the time to plan and for the US government to put forward a plan that is going to reopen borders in places where it makes sense and is safe,” said Sharon Pinkerton, Airlines for America (A4A) senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy.

Travel industry leaders, including A4A, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Travel Association, called on Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce the full reopening of U.S.-U.K. travel in early June in a letter on Monday.

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The U.S. still also has travel restrictions on Brazil, China, Iran, South Africa and other places to prevent most noncitizens from entering the U.S. if they’ve traveled to those countries within two weeks.

“I do think it was the right move to make on India, but it certainly does raise the question, do places like the UK and Israel and China belong on the same list? Since their profiles of infection rate, vaccination rate, and other epidemiological factors are very, very different and much better,” Pinkerton said.

Larry Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University, called travel restrictions an “inconsistent hodgepodge” and said there is no impact on the pandemic within the U.S.

“I just don't see how travel restrictions against India is going to make much of a difference because whatever those variants that are circulating in India have already come to the United States for many weeks, probably months now,” Gostin said.

Former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb similarly told CNBC on Friday that restriction on travel from India is not going to make a big impact because the variant is already in the U.S. The best way for Americans to protect themselves against the variant is to get vaccinated, he said.

Fifty-six percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine and over 40 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Biden has been under pressure to share unused vaccine doses with India and other places where cases are surging.

The debate over travel restrictions on countries with surges in the virus also raises questions about requiring coronavirus passports. Health experts have said a negative test or a vaccination should be required to allow travelers into the U.S.

“We should basically have a rule that requires everybody from any country coming into the United States, any immigrant and others that they have a confirmatory negative SARS COV2 test and/or a vaccination,” Gostin said.

The topic is controversial, and some Americans argue a so-called vaccine passport is an infringement on freedoms. Wen argues that vaccine passports should be more thought of a way to bypass a process if you’re vaccinated so it creates incentive.

“Then it’s not about restricting your freedom, you’re not restricted. You can still do whatever you want. It's just a more onerous process to ensure your safety whereas if you’re vaccinated you don’t need to go through the process,” she said.

A4A said some countries are going to make a digital health credential part of reopening international travel.

“It's important for the US government to incentivize people to get the vaccine and one way to incentivize people to get the vaccine is say if you’re vaccinated, you can travel overseas safely without needing to take a test or quarantine,” Pinkerton said. “They just need to take that really to the next level with international travel and bring the travel restrictions in line with what the science shows, their own data shows, which is the vaccine is extremely efficacious with the virus and variants.”

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Domestic travel is slowly returning after a year of state lockdowns and travel warnings. The CDC updated its travel guidance last month to say fully vaccinated people can travel safely within the U.S.

On Sunday, more than 1.6 million people traveled through U.S. airports, the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that air travel has been this high.

But the travel industry needs international travel to return in order for revenue to reach pre-pandemic levels. International travel accounts for about a third of airline revenue, with domestic and business travel as the other two-thirds.

“Opening international borders when it is safe to do so is a high priority for the entire travel and tourism industry as we try to appropriately balance safety with the need for peoples’ livelihoods to continue and the ability to connect with people overseas,” Pinkerton said.

Nathaniel Weixel contributed.